September Analysis: National Security

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Fahtima Sumar’s visit brought much deeper discussion on the MCC debate, as a result there appears to be a growing frustration towards Nepal. With the Taliban takeover, the efficacy of SAARC is also under scrutiny. The ‘Quad’ held their first ever in person meeting on September, inviting assumptions on how it would impact Nepal’s foreign affairs especially in regards to the MCC.

Timeline of Major Events

DateEvents
September 9MCC Vice President Fatema Sumar arrives in Nepal.
September 16UK, USA, and Australia launch military alliance (AUKUS)
September 24Quad members; USA, India, Japan, and Australia meet at Washington D.C.

Sumar’s Visit Demonstrates Growing American Frustration in Nepal

Vice President of the MCC Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Fatima Sumar at the Tribhuvan International Airport on a four-day visit to Nepal. Photo: RSS

Foreign aid and the influence that come with it has remained a contested topic in geopolitically sensitive Nepal. However, the MCC debate has been politicized, polarizing political parties and the populace. Whether or not MCC is a part of the broader Indo-Pacific strategy (IPS) has taken center stage, triggering intense debates on the compact and if it undermines Nepal’s sovereignty and constitution. IPS as a strategy includes military component, which aims to deter growing Chinese influence, whilst addressing India’s security concerns by way of The United States’ readiness in the area. While some argue that IPS and MCC are closely related as outlined in the U.S. National Security Strategy, others maintain that such claims are overblown and that Nepal would be losing out on one of the largest U.S. grants in recent history for the development of energy infrastructure and road maintenance.

The government of Nepal had sent a letter to MCC seeking clarification on dubious clauses in the compact. While MCC response says Nepal is not a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and describes itself as an independent U.S. foreign assistance agency, American officials have made contradicting statements on the matter in the past. For instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that MCC was in fact a part of IPS during Pradeep Gyawali’s visit in 2019. However, Vice President of MCC, Fatema Sumar, during her visit to Nepal, denied any military component being attached to MCC and maintained that the compact would enable access and support Nepal’s development goals by way of investment in energy and infrastructure. She also said that Nepal should not delay in ratifying the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) adding, “The country needs to ratify it”, in a display of American pressure on the government to ratify the compact.

Fatema also highlighted that her visit to Nepal was to provide clarity on misconceptions and false rhetoric against MCC, demonstrating that the politicization of MCC and American influence in the region has alarmed the United States. Nepali news portals such as Kahabarhub and DC Nepal have suggested Chinese involvement in the disinformation campaign. However, lack concrete evidence cannot confirm the allegations. Furthermore, American frustration is visible in Nepal as cooperation has been scaled down on various fronts over the past three years. Furthermore, while Nepal’s development relationship with the United States is over 80 years old, such public disinformation campaigns and continued politicization may have adverse impact on development partnerships such as USAID and the American support via the United Nations, among others. This also suggests change in American strategic orientation towards Nepal from persuasion and dissuasion to coercion.

SAARC in Deadlock over Afghanistan

While some experts still urge that SAARC continues to be relevant owing to China’s increasing influence in the region, the organization has been non-functional for years. Furthermore, Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has further put the organization in a deadlock. SAARC meetings are usually held along the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly, however, after Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan insisted Taliban involvement at the meeting, other members failed to reach a consensus resulting in a formal cancellation of a SAARC secretaries meeting.

The Taliban has not yet received formal recognition from any country or international organization other than Pakistan. Therefore, it was highly unlikely that the Taliban would be invited to represent Afghanistan in the United Nations. Furthermore, Indo-Pak inertia which has long paralyzed the efficacy of SAARC has once again come into play further reinforcing the notion that the success of SAARC is unlikely given the Indo-Pak tensions. Nepal hasn’t been able to assert itself in SAARC despite being the current chair further demonstrating that fundamental differences and regional rivalry between India and Pakistan will continue to hinder SAARC’s potential to become a successful regional forum.

Quad Ups the Ante

The US-China relationship has entered a period of great uncertainty and instability as China has become more powerful and assertive in the international arena. Similarly, China’s active role in the Asian pacific and beyond has flared security sensitivities of countries India, Japan, and Australia. The four countries came together to establish a quadrilateral security dialogue known as the “quad” in 2017 and held their first ever in person meeting on September 24 at the White House in Washington D.C. The quad had only held virtual meetings so far given the Covid-19 situation. However, the meeting between the leaders of quad members India, Japan, Australia, and the United States demonstrated a vigorous commitment to confront an increasingly assertive China. While China was not mentioned in any public remarks or statements, an insistence on rule based behavior in a region where China has been flexing its muscles shows silent ambition and China is wary of the Quad for good reason.

Despite China’s own assertion that the quad was “doomed to fail”, the dialogue has only gained momentum. The Quad which was once a loose coalition have strengthened their cooperation in areas such as sharing technology, military logistics, intelligence information, and environment along with the silent ambition to counter China’s ability to take charge of the regional narrative. For instance, member states have shown a commitment to collectively donate 1.2 billion doses of vaccines globally by the end of 2022, which is also a direct counter to China’s vaccine diplomacy. Furthermore, the quad has pledged to collaborate in creating a “free and open” technological system in response to growing security concerns about Chinese advancements in technology and electronic warfare. Furthermore, the unveiling of the “AUKUS” military alliance and sharing of nuclear technology between the USA, UK, and Australia will only complement the deterring objectives of the Quad as well as the Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, despite collaboration on diplomatic, technological, and security front, the Quad initiatives lacks an economic component, possibly the most important component, that could act as a counter initiative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the narrative of bringing economic prosperity in the region.

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